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GCC-US summit: Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia

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President Obama’s recent visit to Riyadh to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders was aimed at allaying fears in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that Washington’s commitment to their security had diminished.

The president hoped to use his fourth and probably final trip to the kingdom to dispel some of the frustration felt by Gulf countries toward his administration, in what one senior US official said was a chance to “clear the air”. USA reaffirmed the policy to use all elements to secure the core interests in the Gulf region. However, his visit has not achieved its stated objective.

Obama acknowledged the strains that have afflicted ties between Washington and its Gulf partners, even as they have worked together on shared concerns such as the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They fear, may be without proof, Russia is creating misunderstanding between USA and Arab nations.

GCC-US summit in Riyadh

As USA continues to manage the show in the Mideast region by claiming to be their permanent ally, US President Barack Obama attended a Saudi sponsored second US- Gulf Cooperation Council summit on April 21in Riyadh that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. On the previous day (20th April), Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to seek joint action on security threats including Iran and Islamic State group but nothing worked for Washington.

The US-GCC summit took place amid terror wars in Middle East with shifting political and economic scenes and it comes at a time when the views of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council on regional politics are drastically different. GCC – US summit began as the multilateral war in Syria enters its fifth year with massive humanitarian, political and economic ramifications. The visit for the summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained US relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.

According to the GCC spokesperson, the main issue on the summit’s agenda was the Iranian interventions in Middle East regional politics. Also high on the agenda, according to a White House official, is the usual terrorism and the fight against Islamic State group and other military/intelligence sharing issues. The USA is more concerned with the persistent GCC-Iran rivalry and the burden it places on the USA to “settle scores” once it gets out of capacity.

Last May, Obama hosted the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at the Camp David presidential retreat. He pledged then that the US would cooperate with them to address what he called Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region”. American call for coexistence, after violence and aggression has taken precedence, can now prove elusive. This is easily demonstrated after the bitter and costly confrontations in the region.

King Salman, speaking through a translator, offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president. The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.

As Arab nations are unhappy with the continued pro-Israeli policy of US presidents and the new US policy for Iran, US President Barack Obama failed to convince the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, during their April 22 summit in Riyadh, to support his Middle East policy and cooperate with Washington.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Obama has promised countless times that Washington would train and arm Syrian rebel forces outside the country, and then deploy them in Syria in order to strengthen rebel forces. However, it has not done so except for one instance in 2015. All of Washington’s efforts to recruit and train Syrian fighters, which have cost close to $1 billion, have failed. The US infiltrated a small force consisting of no more than several dozen fighters, but it was destroyed by the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, shortly after it crossed the border. The terrorist group had apparently been tipped off about the arrival of the pro-American force.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lauded the summit as “constructive and fruitful”, according to the Saudi Press Agency, and pledged the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the United States. Footage and photographs aired on state media showed the leaders at a large circular table under a chandelier, with Obama sitting with King Salman on his left and the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan on his right.

His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain said that the GCC-US Summit in Saudi capital, Riyadh, clearly reflects outstanding relations between the GCC countries and the USA and underlines success of dialogue as an approach and continuous consultation regarding various issues. He stressed that the prospective summit is part of the unrelenting efforts of the GCC countries to boost regional welfare through coordination with friendly countries and influential powers, including mainly the USA. He noted that the GCC countries have drawn a well-defined framework for cooperation with the rest of the world based on transparency, credibility and decisiveness in working out solutions and tackling threats, emphasizing the importance of constructive global cooperation to overcome challenges and achieve permanent security and stability.

The summit in Riyadh, Obama’s final meeting with GCC leaders before he leaves the White House next January, ended without a single agreement.

US policy and regional instability

Middle East as well as West Asia has been the most volatile region on earth, owing mainly US determination to sustain Israeli dominance in the region by upgrading its military-terror equipment with fresh supplies all the time.

The Sunni Muslim-ruled Arabia kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the largest buyer of American-made weapons, sees Shiite-led Iran as its main rival. Saudi leaders are concerned that concessions granted to Iran in last year’s nuclear deal will embolden it to pursue what the Saudis view as aggressive meddling throughout the region. Salman’s reign has overseen a more assertive foreign policy, with Saudis venturing into Yemen and pushing the US to take more aggressive moves to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Saudi kingdom is opposed to Iran. On April 19, several hours before Obama’s departure for Riyadh, Iran carried out its latest act of defiance by attempting to launch a satellite into orbit using one of its “Simorgh” intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile failed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, fell to earth and crashed along with the satellite. Obama turned down the Gulf leaders on new sanctions as well.

A couple of weeks ago, top oil producers failed to reach consensus on a freeze of oil production; reflecting the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran aims to increase production to compensate for its long years under sanctions.

The domestic economic scene in Mideast is another aspect that should not be neglected. While economic leverage was presumed to be the cushion that prevented social unrest in the GCC region, economic cuts as a result of the low oil prices are beginning to impact societies.

The situation across the region is hardly different. A new revolution is fermenting in Egypt. Lebanon recently lost a promised $4bn Saudi military aid for not backing GCC side against Iran. Officials in Lebanon did not endorse an Arab League public condemnation of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese armed militia. In Yemen, a Saudi-led GCC coalition war has entered its second year without a foreseeable resolution. Houthi rebels refused to attend a recent UN-backed negotiation in Kuwait for failure of “the other party to commit to a ceasefire”. The situation in Yemen is rapidly approaching the Syrian multilateral war scene. The Yemeni negotiations are also obstructed by the Houthis’ demand to replace Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a president and by Yemen’s southern secessionist movement demand for immediate secession. A recent manifestation took place in Kuwait where oil workers began a strike over public sector pay reforms. There are growing fears that the strike might extend to neighboring GCC countries, particularly in light of recent economic measures.

Deeply worried about US stand on Iran, Saudi Arabia recently established a bloc and with Turkey along with Egypt and Jordan to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, started to infiltrate a force of 3,500 rebels back into Syria. The force has been trained and financed by the Saudis at special camps in Turkey and Jordan. Members of the force are now fighting alongside other rebels north of Aleppo, but they are being bombed heavily by the Russian and Syrian air forces.

Saudi Arabia is annoyed that USA in Syria looks other way. In fact, Riyadh sent the rebels into Syria to demonstrate to Obama that the Saudi royal family opposes the policy of diplomatic and military cooperation between the US and Russia regarding Syria that enables President Bashar Assad to remain in power in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia, with Turkey’s help, and the US carried out separate military operations several hours before the start of the summit that showed the extent of their differences. The US last week started to use its giant B-52 bombers against ISIS in an attempt to show Gulf leaders that it is determined to quash the terrorist organization’s threat to Gulf States. The bombers deployed at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase attacked targets around Mosul in northern Iraq, but the targets were not identified.

In anticipation of Obama’s second visit to Saudi kingdom, a group of human rights advocated have written an open letter to urge the president to pressure GCC leaders for political and civil reforms. Last year, the US-GCC summit received similar appeals. Understandably, it is hard to conceptualize the link between more freedom and civil rights in GCC and regional stability, as there are many variables involved in fostering and enabling regional violence. It is, therefore, expected that any strategies aimed at achieving regional stability and economic reforms will need to apply measures of meaningful political reforms, but keeping Islamic system intact, not only to drive regional stability but also to reduce the effect of replicating the NATO violent ideology in Mideast, fuelling the regional conflicts. It is not a question of luxury but of necessity to press for a space for a discourse of moderation and modernisation, without in any way opposing Islamic values, where the price of freedom of expression, and that of regional stability, is not paid in life or liberty. Nothing should be negatively influencing Islamic faith.

Divergence and failed mission

Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted on a red carpet not by King Salman but by Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Before Obama landed, Saudi state television did not immediately air Obama’s arrival, but showed the king greeting other senior officials from Gulf nations arriving for the summit.

Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the smell of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for camera pictures at the start of their private meeting. “The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-US summit that’s taking place tomorrow,” Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

The White House said would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and Iran. Talks addressed the Saudi-led military campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen. US officials have expressed hope the latest meeting will build on last year’s Camp David summit, though they acknowledge differences remain between the US and Saudi Arabia. It was hoped the summit would come up with results that would help handle the grave regional and international challenges, boost regional peace and security and achieve aspirations for more welfare by adhering to clear-cut principles, including mainly mutual respect, no interference in countries’ internal affairs and respect of international laws.

The leaders of the six GCC member states put their previous differences aside and presented President Obama with four requests aimed at building a new joint policy regarding the region, namely, Action by Washington to strengthen the Sunni majority in Iraq and facilitate representation of the Sunnis in the central government in Baghdad. The Gulf rulers told Obama that his policy of trying to win the support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is mistaken. Obama rejected the request and said he refuses to change his Iraq policy.

Further, the GCC sought imposition of new US sanctions on Iran over its continuing ballistic missile tests and provision of US-made F-35 fighter-bombers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE so they can take action against the Iranian missile threat. GCC also wants USA ti abandon Washington’s cooperation with Russia and the UN for political solution in Syria, and instead cooperate with Gulf States and Turkey to end the war and depose President Bashar Assad. The US president declined all the requests and refused to oblige Arab nations.

Observation

The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies. Most of the GCC states have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the USA has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran. This obviously has upset the Arab leaders.

Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia amid tension with Arab nations over Israel and Iran would put the bilateral ties under further strains. Saudi Arabia has clearly offered Obama to choose between GCC and Iran. However, as the global super power with veto facility, Washington cannot take a firm decision on the matter as it advances national interest globally.

Recent expressions of frustration by Obama revealed some of the contentious differences on key issues. President Barack Obama pledged to “deter aggression” against Gulf Arab allies increasingly concerned about Iran’s influence in the region but did not shy away from raising sensitive issues in talks aimed at addressing recent strains in US-Gulf ties. Washington says the USA remains deeply enmeshed in Gulf security, cooperating closely with the monarchies to strengthen their armed forces and share intelligence aimed at countering Islamist militant groups. Obama said the USA shares the Gulf countries’ concerns about what he called destabilizing activities by Iran, which agreed with major powers in July 2015 to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of some sanctions.

The American president has said he wants Gulf allies to offer more democratic reforms and improve human rights, and he discussed that with King Salman. Obama also raised the issue of sectarianism, for which he has chided Gulf states in the past on grounds it fuels militancy, saying “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity”. Adding to tensions is a bill proposed in US Congress to lift Riyadh’s immunity if any Saudi officials are found to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama has said he opposes the bill because it could lead to cases directed against the United States in foreign courts.

Saudi Arabia led Arab nations have a vital role to play in Islamic world to consciously promote Islamic faith and Islamic values. Although this role could also be played by Turkey and Iran, central role Arab leadership should play in this cannot be belittled. After all, Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. True, today there is an apparent shift in Arab thinking to equate Islam with capitalism as crony capitalism has spread in Arab world as fast as in Israel and western world. Arab governments very seriously promote corporatism as the next level of capitalism and now, unfortunately, linking the capitalist trend even with ugly and dirty imperialism. Saudi led GCC nations are also fighting wars in Mideast.

As Arab nations are trying to bring Islam closer to western capitalism, they also look for active support of the western powers for their promotion of capitalism and support for imperialism.

Arab world is suspicious of US intentions in the region. Of course, USA possesses ample number of tools to keep the Arab nations under its strict control, despite the differences in their relations over Iran and Israel. After all USA is reining superpower – considered as the formidable threat even by equally strong power Russia in all spheres – and Saudi Arabia is not.

Saudi Arabia is not even a veto power. Obama visit to Riyadh clearly reveals the serious nature of crisis in bilateral relations, not withstanding increasing mutual trade in oil and arms.

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Middle East

Is Iran Testing Trump With Little Attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci

The sound of an explosion echoed through the Green Zone on Sunday night around 9:00 p.m., a reminder that this most secure part of the Iraqi capital is not, in fact, all that safe. The projectile appears to have been aimed at the United States embassy and, after the blast, embassy sirens went off, accompanied by repeated warnings blaring on loudspeakers instructing everyone to take immediate cover.

Within the hour the missile was reported to have been fired from the Amana bridge in Baghdad, missing its likely intended target and landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with no casualties reported.

But for a brief and highly fraught moment alarms were going off in Washington, as well, where the much-publicized threat of Iranian “proxy” attacks on U.S. interests and personnel, and the American response positioning bombers and aircraft carriers, have conjured the specter of a new Middle Eastern war. One breaking news service breathlessly reported National Security Adviser John Bolton “just seen arriving at the White House amid rocket attack possibly aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.”

President Trump, meanwhile, tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It is not clear if he was responding to the rocket, a Katyusha that might have been fired by any number of players in Iraq, or to threatening rhetoric by some Iranian officials, or both.

In any case, non-essential American personnel at the embassy had already been ordered to depart days earlier, many moving to posts in nearby countries to continue their work, and the U.S. embassy was already expecting a possible attack.

Our team of researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) landed in Baghdad on May 14, 2019, the day before the U.S. State Department issued the security alert to the “non-essentials” in Baghdad and Erbil, recommending they “depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible, avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq, monitor local media for updates, review personal security plans, remain aware of surroundings.”

An earlier security alert on May 12 advised all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq and the requirement to remain vigilant. It recommended not traveling to Iraq, avoiding places known as U.S. citizen gathering points, keeping a low profile and, once again, being aware of your surroundings.

For those of use who have been visiting Iraq since 2006, this seems at once familiar and strange. Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.

Despite President Trump saying he does not want war, does this action signal that something more than just mortar fire is about to come?

A former senior diplomat who served in Iraq following the 2003 invasion warned that if the U.S. or Israel had decided to launch air strikes on Iran, emptying the embassy might be a smart move.  Iran could strike back at a close and convenient target—the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and its ballistic missiles would be much more dangerous and difficult to withstand than mortars or Katyushas.

According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket Sunday night was launched by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah. If it came on Iranian orders, the lone, ineffectual projectile may have been intended as a pin-prick provocation testing reactions without triggering full-fledged war. Other recent incidents—a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline; minor explosions on Saudi and other oil tankers—could fall into the same category.

Iraq, liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has come under increasing Iranian influence ever since, and the Iran-backed militias played a key role fighting the so-called Islamic State after the national army virtually imploded in 2014. They have since become a major element in the Iraqi defense apparatus, even though some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground training and working with other elements of the Iraqi military.

The threat inside Iraq to U.S. personnel was revealed in part to Iraqi leaders during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit here on May 7.

The secretary is reported to have told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence detected that Iranian-backed militias moving missiles near bases housing American forces. Reuters reported that, according to a senior Iraqi official privy to the substance of the talks, Pompeo asked the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias. Pompeo also expressed U.S. concern about these militias’ increased presence and influence in Iraq and warned that the U.S. would use force to tackle the security threats if necessary, without first consulting Baghdad.

Iraq’s pro-Iranian military factions have long been a concern for U.S. personnel deployed in the region. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a radical Shiite militia in Iraq has, for example, long been cooperating with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that was just declared by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The newly appointed IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, replied that his people are proud to be called terrorists by President Trump while also threatening the U.S. and Israel.

The Iraqi militia, Nujaba, also was added by the U.S. State Department to the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations on March 7 this year and its leader Akram Kaabi was sanctioned.

Nujaba has been demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq for quite some time. On May 12, Nujaba’s leaders proclaimed, “Confrontation with the United States will only stop once it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity,” while also stating that Iraqi resistance factions are ready to target U.S. interests in Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which our source says was behind the Sunday night rocket attack, warned in February 2018 that it might engage in armed confrontation with US forces in Iraq at any moment. According to one Iraqi source, the Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias that recently placed missiles near U.S. military bases.

The New York Times reported the the U.S. government was picking up an increase in conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq.

The New York Times also reported that American officials cited intelligence from aerial photographs of fully assembled missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf as cause for the U.S. administration to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran. This created concerns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships or American commercial ships.

An Iraqi source confirmed on May 18 that ExxonMobil was evacuating its personnel of 30 to 50 employees from Basra, Iraq, and that the Bahrain embassy had also evacuated its employees from both Iraq and Iran. And U.S. embassies disseminated a warning from the Federal Aviation Agency that U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf risk being misidentified and by implication shot down amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

A potential conflict much larger than Iranian-backed Shia militias throwing mortar fire at the now fortress-like U.S. Embassy appears to be brewing amid credible intelligence coupled with heated anti-American rhetoric.

Yet, security threats to U.S. personnel serving in Iraq are nothing out of the ordinary and date back to the 2003 U.S. invasion. At the height of its activities, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had thousands of personnel, including contractors. They regularly suffered all sorts of threats from IED attacks when they ventured out on the road, RPG fire when they used helicopters, snipers when they were out in public view and intermittent but regular mortar fire that rained down on the temporary trailers that served as housing near the old Saddam palace where they worked. One mortar penetrated a window to the bathroom of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador’s office, situated inside the palace, destroying the brick wall around the window. It was later bricked up completely. The walkway from the trailers to the palace was mortared so often and so hard that it was nicknamed “death alley” by embassy personnel serving there.

While embassy personnel received danger and hardship pay, none were ordered home during those years, and danger was considered a part of the assignment. IED’s and mortars occasionally killed embassy personnel, but that did not stop the mission.

At present, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad is housed in a complex on a closed street that only badged officials can enter. The grounds are heavily walled walled and difficult to enter and inside, the buildings appear strongly built to withstand assault.

In Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also fell under the non-essential personnel evacuation order, a restaurant nearby was attacked by a car bomb in 2015, killing three non-Americans. But, while less robustly built, the consulate also is behind a concrete walled-off security space.

U.S. Embassy diplomatic personnel posted in both Baghdad and Erbil infrequently leave their fortresses and when they do travel around Iraq, their security requirements require using armored cars, wearing bullet proof vests and flack helmets and traveling with armed security guards, sometimes with chase and lead cars in a convoy.

Likewise, U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil are not family postings—diplomatic personnel serve for one or two years, leaving their family members behind.

The new embassy building, not far from the old one, was planned during the time of frequent attacks and was undoubtedly built to withstand mortar storms. Long and short-range ballistic missiles however constitute a whole different threat and it’s not publicly known if the new embassy has bomb-hardened resistant bunkers to protect embassy personnel.

Whether U.S. embassy non-essential personnel will return to post anytime soon remains to be seen, and given the dangers such personnel have faced in the past and the fortress in which they currently serve, why they were really ordered home is also still an unanswered question. With ships coming to the region and troops readying for potential travel, serious troubles may well be on the horizon.

While the saber rattling on both sides continues, Baghdad has also made clear that it doesn’t want to become the battlefield.

Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast

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Iran vs. US: Bracing for war?

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On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed tough unilateral sanctions on Tehran. Exactly a year later, this move looks dangerously fraught with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the Middle East.

Britain, France and Germany, as participants and co-sponsors of the JCPOA, strongly criticized Trump’s anti-Iranian policy and, with Russian and Chinese support, they established, registered and set in motion, albeit in a test mode, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran.

Tehran took its time hoping for European support. However, on April 22, 2019, Trump ended waivers that Washington had earlier granted China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Taiwan that allowed these countries to import Iranian oil. A complete ban on the purchase of Iranian crude came into force on May 2, 2019. The United States’ ultimate goal is to stop all Iranian crude exports. Whether this is actually possible is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the US is ramping up economic pressure on Tehran.

Meanwhile, Europe will hardly be able to resist Washington’s sanctions against Iran, which are almost as hard-hitting as the ones that were in effect between 2012 and 2016 when the Iranian economy was going through hard times. Still, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini recently went on record saying that “we will continue to support [JCPOA] as much as we can with all our instruments and all our political will.”

Just how much will the EU really has to resist US pressure is a big question though.

Iran found itself in a real fix with President Hassan Rouhani saying that the situation the country is in today is no different from what it experienced during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

“During the war, we had no problems with our banks, oil sales, imports and exports. There were only sanctions for the purchase of arms,” he noted.

Hassan Rouhani emphasized the US sanctions’ strong impact on the country, and called for a concerted effort by all to minimize their effect.

“The enemies’ sanctions against our banking sector also affect our oil, petrochemicals, steel and agricultural exports, impair the work of Iranian seaports, shipyards and sea carriers. Our shipping companies have been blacklisted by the US Treasury,” Rouhani added.

He said that Iran would not bow to US pressure and will be looking for a way out of this situation.

What can Iran do?

First, it could exit the nuclear deal. Not immediately, like the US did, but gradually, refusing to fulfill the specific terms of the accord. Iran is already doing this now.

On May 8, President Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer observe two key commitments under the JCPOA accord, namely to sell to Russia and the US uranium enriched to 3.76 percent at volumes exceeding the storage allowed in Iran (over 300 kilograms). By the time the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the Islamic Republic had accumulated 10,357 kilos of such low-grade uranium, and 410.4 kilos of uranium enriched to 20 percent. To date, Iran has destroyed its entire stock of 20-percent-enriched uranium and has shipped surplus low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and the United States. According to the JCPOA, Tehran was allowed to enrich limited quantities of uranium for scientific purposes and sell any enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram limit on international markets in return for natural uranium. Now Iran will start stocking up on low-enriched uranium again. 

Neither will Tehran consider itself committed to the caps agreed under the deal on the mandatory sale of excess heavy water used in the production of military-grade plutonium. Iran has a working facility to produce heavy water, which is not covered by the JCPOA. However, it can store no more than 130 tons of heavy water. Tehran has already exported 32 tons to the US and 38 tons to Russia. Now it will start storing heavy water again.

President Rouhani gave the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal 60 days to make good on their promises to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors. The Iranian move is certainly not directed at Washington but, rather, at Brussels in order to make it more actively and effectively resist US sanctions or see Iran resume higher levels of uranium enrichment, potentially all the way to bomb-making capability.  

He added that if the EU fails to address Iran’s concerns, Tehran will suspend the implementation of two more commitments under the JCPOA.

If its demands are not met, Tehran will no longer be bound by its commitment to enrich uranium up to 3.76 percent. Ali-Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in January that the country had already taken the necessary steps to resume enrichment in larger volumes and with a higher level of enrichment.

Tehran will also reject help from the 5+1 group of initiators of the JCPOA (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany) in the reconstruction of the heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.

The R-1 heavy water reactor was designed to produce up to 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is enough to build two plutonium nuclear weapons. The terms of the JCPOA accord require redesigning the reactor in such a way as to make it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. To oversee the process, they set up a working group of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Authority of China and the US Department of Energy. In 2017, a UK representative moved in to fill the void left by the departing US representative. According to an official Iranian report issued in April 2018, the country had already completed a “conceptual reconstruction of the reactor.”  Still, the reconstruction process is slow and can easily be reversed. At least for now.

If, however, the EU comes across, then, according to Hassan Rouhani, Iran will honor its commitments under the JCPOA deal. “If [the five JCPOA co-signatories] could protect our main interests in oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one [and will resume our commitments],” Rouhani said.

The question is whether the European Union can fully activate INSTEX and  ensure continued oil exports and imports. Many people doubt this.

According to analysts, by demanding that Europeans “bring down to zero” their purchases of Iranian oil, the United States threatened to slap sanctions on European companies paying for Iranian oil. Shortly afterwards, almost all European banks refused to finance Iranian crude imports. The EU thus inadvertently joined the US sanctions, even though it continued to stick to the terms of the JCPA accord.

At the same time, European companies were all too happy to go ahead with the implementation of the part of the agreement that had not yet been banned, selling unauthorized goods to Iran. Tehran then complained that the deal allowed Europeans to make money inside Iran while preventing Iranians from selling their oil in the EU – a violation of the fundamental provision of the nuclear accord.

Tehran’s threat to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal is sending a clear signal to the dithering Europeans to resume Iranian oil imports or see Tehran restarting nuclear production.

However, preoccupied by more pressing problems, the Europeans have other things to worry about. Moreover, no one is looking for a showdown with the EU’s main ally, the United States. According to Russian Oriental affairs expert Nikolai Kozhanov, Europeans consider the issue of circumventing US sanctions as an important part of their search for a mechanism of counter-sanctions in similar situations with more important economic partners, such as China or Russia.

Therefore, Iran is likely to press ahead with suspending its obligations under the JCPOA, which include the activation and acceleration of R&D in the field of improving centrifuges and building more of them in the future. Tehran could also hold up the implementation of the Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Signed in 2003, the Protocol gives the UN nuclear watchdog greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and provides for surprise inspections. Iran has not yet ratified this document, even though it fulfilled its requirements until 2006 and has done so since 2016.

Of course, Iran will go about additional suspensions very carefully (if it will at all), mindful of their possible consequences, because it would hate to see Europe turning its back on it and siding with Washington, adding its own sanctions to the American ones, thus essentially making them international.

Ever since the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran has issued a flurry of serious warnings that it might end its participation in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the IAEA. On April 28, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on record saying that Tehran was mulling an exit from the NPT as a response to US sanctions. He added that Tehran “has many options” of response. “Exit from the NPT is one such option,” Zarif noted.

This was only a rhetorical threat, however, meant to prod the European Union towards closer cooperation with Iran as a means of countering US sanctions. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Iran would withdraw either from the NPT or the IAEA, because this could make it an absolute outcast and the butt of scathing criticism worldwide.  

Second, to demonstrate strength and willingness to resist and safeguard the country’s interests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei never tires of emphasizing the need for a tough policy of “resistance,” based on:

  • an active and effective search for ways to circumvent crippling economic sanctions;
  • strengthening the armed forces with an emphasis on the development of a missile program;
  • active promotion of Iranian interests in the region.

The “resistance” policy is primarily built around the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which brings together the country’s military, intelligence, police, political, ideological, as well as financial and economic structures. The IRGC is actually an all-embracing mega holding, led directly by the Supreme Leader and members of his inner circle. The Revolutionary Guards, who have proved highly efficient in countering sanctions,  modernizing the armed forces and promoting Iranian activities in the region, are all Tehran actually needs to implement a strict “resistance” policy.

With the situation developing as it is, Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent decision to replace the IRGC commander, General Mohammed Ali Jafari, who led the Corps for more than 11 years, with Brigadier General Hossein Salami looks pretty natural. The IRGC’s former deputy commander, General Salami is ideologically closer to Khamenei and is known for his radical statements. Ayatollah Khamenei also replaced about 60 officers both in the IRGC central office and local administrations with relatively young, ambitious, ideologically tested and competent officers. They are tasked with turning the IRGC into an indispensable and all-embracing institution that dominates the entire gamut of Iranian life: from ensuring internal and external security all the way to economic activity and cyberwarfare.

According to Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening the IRGC, which he sees as the cornerstone of the country’s triad of advanced missile technology, a nuclear program and asymmetric military capabilities to ensure reliable defense against any potential aggression by anyone.

Tehran’s decision to strengthen the IRGC was certainly prompted by President Trump’s statement on April 8, which branded the Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Until recently, President Rouhani sought to keep the IRGC in check and limit its impact on many aspects of the country’s life. In fact, Trump’s recent statement played right into the hands of diehard radicals within the IRGC and in Iran as a whole.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded to President Trump’s statement by putting on the list of terrorist organizations the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East and Central Asia. Simultaneously, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces said that the Iranian military was ready to use any means at its disposal against US troops in the region who are now likewise designated by Tehran as terrorists. This is putting Americans in peril all across the Middle East region, primarily in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf – wherever Iranian and US military might cross their paths.

Washington’s latest anti-Iranian move seriously exacerbated the already very strained relations between the two countries.

Third. To ramp up anti-American propaganda and warlike rhetoric in order to demonstrate Iran’s strength to the United States and its readiness to defend its interests even with the use of military force.

Increasingly frustrated with the situation around the JCPOA and doubting the EU’s ability to resist the US pressure on Iran, Tehran has been rolling back its participation in the nuclear deal, which is dangerously fraught with a new nuclear crisis and heightened tensions with the United States.

Meanwhile, an escalation is already happening. The United States is sending a battery of Patriot air defense missiles and an amphibious warship, USS Arlington, to CENTCOM’s operational responsibility zone. The Arlington will join a naval strike carrier group led by the world’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (5,680 crew, 90 combat aircraft and helicopters on board) and a tactical group of B-52 strategic bombers.

Moreover, an updated plan that has just been presented by the Acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, envisions the dispatch of up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran steps up the development of nuclear weapons, or attacks the US military. However, the plan does not provide for a ground operation against Iran, which would require a lot more troops.

Iran has promised serious response to any use of force by the United States, with the IRGC commander, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, warning that “if America takes a step against us, then we will strike a blow to the head.” He believes, however, that the United States will not risk using its aircraft carriers against Iran, and added that since Iran’s defense capabilities are adequate and sufficient, US aircraft carriers are quite vulnerable.

Military experts know better of course, but when it comes to politics, chances of resolving the current crisis between Iran and the United States look pretty slim. In fact, the conflict may be beneficial to both President Trump and the IRGC.

Trump could use the standoff as a chance to show the opposition Democrats how tough he is with Iran, which is equally loathed by his supporters and many of his opponents alike.

Meanwhile, a US military buildup close to the Iranian borders would play right into the hands of local hardliners who have always been up in arms against any negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal itself.

With the situation favoring the opponents of President Rouhani, the IRGC is ruling out any possibility of negotiations with the US. The head of the IRGC’s political bureau, Yadolla Javani, said that “there will be no negotiations with the Americans,” in a remark that could also be aimed at politicians inside Iran who would like to maintain a dialogue with the US no matter what.

Still, according to unconfirmed reports, the Iranians are negotiating behind closed doors with American representatives in Oman, which is a traditional meeting place for both.

The IRGC needs tensions running high because this is turning it into the country’s foremost institution.

What is also clear is a dangerous psychological war now raging between Washington and Tehran. Just where things may go from now is hard to tell, but it still looks like the sides will not come to blows after all. The Iranian-American brinkmanship with concentrations of troops and military hardware in the region is fraught with unpredictable accidents that can force the parties to go overboard. Hopefully, things will not go beyond bellicose rhetoric.

“There will be no war, the Iranian people have chosen the path of resistance to America, and this resistance will force it to retreat,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, emphasizing, however, that this resistance is not military in nature. Neither side wants a military showdown.

Tehran and Washington realize full well that if the situation comes down to a military flare-up, then this, regardless of the real scale of the fighting, would spell disaster for the entire Middle East with equally dire consequences for the rest of the world.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

A survey of Arab youth highlights gaps between policies and aspirations

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth concerns about their future suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods, explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism, and indicate that jobs and social freedoms are more important than political rights.

The survey provides insights that should inform autocrats’ quest for social and economic reform. It also suggests, together with the intermittent eruption of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab world, that Western and Middle Eastern interests would be better served by more nuanced US and European approaches towards the region’s regimes.

Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts rather than more forcefully sought to ensure that they would bear fruit and have been lax in pressuring regimes to at least curb excesses of political repression.

Critics charge that the survey by Dubai-based public relations firm asda’a bcw focussed on the 18-24 age group was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries such as Egypt, used small samples of up to 300 people, and did not include Qatar, Syria and Sudan.

The results constitute a mixed bag for Arab autocrats and suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations is easier said than done and could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.

A majority of youth, weened on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, have so far failed to deliver.

Even more problematic, youth expect governments to be the provider at a time that reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control, and stimulation of the private sector.

A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families while 60 percent expected government to supply housing.

By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Gulf. Yet, 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent that felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for a local higher education.

There appeared to be a similar gap between the foreign and regional policies of governments and youth aspirations.

Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fuelled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudi Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. In favour of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67% of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for US president Donald J. Trump’s peace plan that is widely believed to disadvantage the Palestinians enjoys popular support.

The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year that viewed the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.

Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.

Some two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50% four years ago. Seventy-nine percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedoms, highlighting discrimination of Shia Muslims and Christians.

“Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.

In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary” and that they were unlikely to “to fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”

In the words of Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind… The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go,” Mr. Azour said in his contribution to the white paper.

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